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Senate passes new COA panel bill

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The Indiana Senate has given its OK to add three judges to the state's second highest appellate court.

By a 47-2 vote just before 7 p.m. Monday, senators passed Senate Bill 35 that would create a sixth Indiana Court of Appeals panel and increase the number of judges from 15 to 18 starting in January 2010. Sen. Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, and Sen. James Lewis, D-Charlestown, voted against the legislation, though no one spoke against the bill on the floor.

Bill author Sen. Richard Bray, R-Martinsville - chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that unanimously authorized this bill and also the leader of the Commission on Courts that's repeatedly recommended the panel's creation in past years - reminded his colleagues that this new panel of judges has been recommended for at least five years, and that it's inevitable and becomes more pressing each year.

"Each year we need it a little worse," he said, referring to a growing appellate caseload nearing 3,000 a year.

During a Senate Judiciary meeting in January, Chief Judge John Baker said the court achieved a clearance rate of 100 percent last year and maintains an average turnaround time for decisions of about 1 ½ months - two points that allows Indiana's intermediate appellate court to be able to say it's the most efficient court of its kind nationally.

While the court is doing well to keep up and the chief judge hasn't made any official request for more judges, both he and Bray said the need will eventually become critical as the ever-growing caseload continues but the judicial resources remain the same. If the General Assembly doesn't add more judges, Bray said the court will be left with options of writing fewer opinions, spending less time on cases, or decreasing the quality of its judicial work - none of those are legally desirable, he said.

"This may be subject to budget constraints and may not happen this year," he said. "But once again, we keep postponing the inevitable. If the fiscal people could find anyway to get this in, I think it would benefit our state, our legal system, and everyone."

A hurdle may arise for the legislation now that it moves to the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives: The bill's fiscal impact statement estimates spending $1.3 million the first year and $2.2 million thereafter, which could cause more legislative apprehension.

If the General Assembly passes the legislation and the governor signs it into law, the Judicial Nominating Commission would begin the selection process later this year, according to the proposal.

Reps. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, and Kathy Richardson, R-Noblesville, have agreed to sponsor the appellate judge panel legislation in the House.

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